This month I relived two of my most favorite moments from the not-so-distant past. And those experiences made me stop and rethink our present-day obsession with digital stuff.
A week ago, while I was on a business trip to Tokyo, I visited the Tsutaya record store in Shibuya and bought CDs with newly released albums by two promising Japanese rock bands. Then, today — after I’d finally shaken off the jet-lag and had some time to go through my purchases from Japan — I relived a second momentary hit of nostalgia as I slowly unwrapped the CDs and leafed through the pages with lyrics and photos in the artful booklets. Oh, what a bliss! And also, what a revelation about how quickly we’ve forgotten about habits that until just a few years ago seemed so normal to us.
Before you dismiss me as overly sentimental and old-fashioned, please take a pause for a few seconds and picture the two scenes I describe below. I’m sure that visualizing these experiences in your head would bring a nostalgic tear or two to your eyes — provided, of course, that you were born before the 1990s (sorry, dear millennials, I think this post may not resonate with you the same way it will with us Generation Xers). So here are the two scenes:
1. Visit to the Good, Old, Long Forgotten Record Store
When was the last time you actually visited a record store? You know, one of these places where they used to have long racks filled with CDs, ordered alphabetically, and the guy or gal behind the counter had numerous piercings and tattoos on their bodies, and were blasting some cool, catchy tunes on the 200-watt speakers. I bet many of you would be hard pressed to remember the actual time you last did that. Actually, many of you would probably have a hard time to think of such a store that is still in business.
Well, as much as I consider myself a high-tech aficionado, I have to admit that I had missed the occasional visits to the Tower Records store on 20th and Penn Avenue in downtown DC, just below my old office. Amazon’s MP3 store, iTunes and Google Play are all great digital marketplaces, but being virtual, they always feel a bit too sterile and removed to me. So, being in Japan — the land of constant paradox — for a couple of weeks, I was happy to find out that my hotel in Shibuya was surrounded by several mega stores dedicated to selling all kinds of CDs and DVDs.
Just for the record, I call Japan the land of constant paradox, because people there take for granted some electronic gadgets that the rest of the world may consider exotic, but at the same time may adhere to habits that may look a bit old-fashioned to the casual stranger. Take as an example the fact that you can be served a draft beer with the perfect foamy head on top, meticulously poured for you by a robot, and at the same time people still visit real, physical, multi-floor record stores, where they discover new music at the listening stations and then line up at the cashier’s to pay for their newly acquired CDs, while chatting with their friends on their smart phones.
But back to my story. My curiosity finally took the upper hand during my second week in Shibuya, and I ventured into the huge Tsutaya store right across the train station. I went to the New Releases section, and picked up a few CDs. I wasn’t sure what exactly I was looking for. But, by chance, I happened to pick up the new album by Okamoto’s (not to be confused with the eponymous leading Japanese brand of condoms). I put on the headphones hanging from the near-by listening station and quickly skimmed through the tracks on the CD. The band, originally from Shinjuku which is just a few train stops from Shibuya on the Yamanote line, immediately grabbed me with its rocky beats that somehow reminded me of the Beatles or Rolling Stones, but wrapped in Japanese lyrics. Excited, I picked up the CD next to Okamoto’s and it turned out to be the 1-2-3 album by another young Japanese rock band, called The Bawdies. Before quickly going through all the tracks on that album, I had already made up my mind — I was going to buy those CDs. With utmost exhilaration in my mind, I went to the counter, lined up, and was delighted to see the cashier adding an Okamoto’s sticker with their album cover and a Tsutaya / The Bawdies co-branded mini tote bag as free goodies to my purchase. Oh, what a bliss! The forgotten memories from the not-so-distant past started flowing in my mind, as I exited the store and went for dinner with two colleagues from the Japanese office.
2. Unwrapping the Albums
After I came back from Japan this past weekend, I was a bit too overwhelmed with new experiences and sensations — and also jet-lagged — to sit down and immediately unwrap my newly bought CDs. I let a few days pass, and finally got to business and opened them up today. The mere action of unwrapping and opening the jewel cases, taking out the thick artfully printed booklets and leafing through pages with lyrics and photos, and then holding the CDs in my hand, made me feel so good… and young… and human — again. 🙂
There was a strange sensation all around me. There I was, sitting on my bed, doing something that I had done numerous times in my younger years, and at the same time I had the latest Nokia Lumia 920 smart phone lying next to me — a device that has more capabilities and processing power than my laptop had the last time I unwrapped a CD case!
Time has flown so fast in the past few years. And things have changed so much. We have become extremely empowered by the ubiquitous digital technology surrounding us — that is a fact that I am not going to contest. However, we have also become a bit less human. We have forgotten what it means to touch a product, to assess its quality not only based on how it sounds, but also on how it looks and feels in our hands. Strange thoughts, indeed.
The irony of reliving these favorite moments from the not-so-distant past was strong enough to force my will to return to my blog (after almost five months of pause) and write this post. But as I set about to do that, I actually had one even more ironic experience. I inserted the CDs in my laptop and ripped them to 320 kbps mp3s, then synced them wirelessly via Skydrive to my Nokia Lumia, paired my phone to my digital Bluetooth receiver, and started blasting Dance The Night Away, the opening song from The Bawdies’ album, on my large speakers. Why did I do it? For a very simple and ironic reason — I realized I no longer had a standalone CD player hooked to my Hi-Fi music system in my living room… I’ll upload the two albums’ mp3s to my car stereo’s hard disk tomorrow so I can listen to them while I drive around my neighborhood. Then, I’ll let the two CDs stand prominently on my bookcase — to remind me of a past that was only a few years ago, yet feels ages away… And to remind myself that I am still human!
Isn’t that ironic? 🙂